The Postmodern Memoir
Hugh Ryan | March/April 2012
As the literary descendent of biography and journalism, it is no wonder that memoir (as a genre), has a rocky relationship with the truth. Like the artistic child born to scientific parents, it defies expectations. On the one hand, it is reportage, expected to convey facts; on the other, it is art, expected to reinvent the world. There is no greater proof of the unease this duality creates than the constant battle over what constitutes truth in nonfiction. Every year, another sensational memoir is released, only to be torn apart by investigative journalists-and rightfully so. These are not books that play with objective truth in order to better recreate the author's subjective experience, but ones that toss the truth aside entirely for the author's gain. For these writers, truth is simply a marketing ploy, and readers are right to feel angry and manipulated. But is it possible for writers who perceive the world as a collection of competing truths, where the "real" answer may never be known, to honestly write a work of nonfiction? And if so, what would it look like?
In the aftermath of World-War-II, the entire concept of truth in literature came under question. The brutality of war tested the belief in perfection and progress. Authors tried to replicate for their readers the state of not knowing what was true or good. They wrote books like Joseph Heller's Catch-22, in which the impossible brushed up against the all-too-real. They found inspiration in the formal experimentations of the great modernist writers, like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. They mimicked the linguistic playfulness of these earlier authors, but with an entirely different intention: instead of breaking language apart and looking for its purest form, they used words to undermine meaning, and embraced the ironic.
As the children raised in this chaotic literary moment begin to write their memoirs, it is not surprising that they are looking to recreate this sense of confusion. For these authors, it is not enough to assume that readers acknowledge the unknowability of objective fact. They are consciously creating books in which the unreliable narrator is themselves. They are not trying to report on their lives from the outside, but rather, to replicate for the reader the experience of living them.
Like the original postmodernists, they are interested in exploring those areas where the metanarrative of truth is at best useless, and at worst, stands in the way of actual comprehension. By highlighting their own bias and doubt, they are presenting a more honest depiction of life. Furthermore, while they diminish the trust of the reader in the author-as-narrator, they strengthen the reader's trust in the author-as-writer: in a genre rocked by scandal, the writer who admits her own faults seems more reliable than the writer who presents herself as perfect. This is a dangerous line to walk, and the writer who goes too far stands the chance of losing all authority and being disregarded.
So how to do it? The old adage "show, don't tell" applies in creating the narrative "I" in memoir as much as in fiction. The postmodern memoir experientially creates in the reader a conscious resistance to the narrative, which replicates the author's own ambivalence towards the possibility of orderly narratives in life. What follows are three techniques some contemporary writers are employing to this end: switching from first-person to second or third, creating a nonlinear structure, and using fiction (openly) within the memoir. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point for finding commonalities in this new form. As more authors create their own unstable histories, this list will grow.
Second- and Third-Person Narration
Alienation from the self is the primal drive of authors who use the second- or third-person in their memoirs. Joan Wickersham, in her book The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order, flirts often with this sensation. Even in sections written in the first person, she challenges her own writing, calling some passages too emotional or speculative, as though multiple authors were attempting to write a single text. In the end, the first person cannot contain her own doubts about her project, and she abandons it.
When Wickersham's father, an unsuccessful businessman, kills himself in his study one morning, all of the usual tropes of suicide appear in her head. It was expected. It was out of the blue. It was motivated by childhood trauma; his failure in business; his unhappy family life, etc.
In a standard memoir, one of these avenues would be chosen, explored, and proven true. This is exactly what Wickersham hopes to avoid. She says so explicitly: "Biography, in the case of someone who commits suicide, is particularly dangerous, misleading. It looks at a life through the lens of a death. Every time a bad thing happens, the temptation is to say 'Aha!' I have to be careful not to make this too orderly." To this end, she creates the book as an index, an annotation on some larger life, which we see only in pieces, and out of order.
Order is the enemy because order, in our minds, is equivalent to certainty. Wickersham is looking to make the book-like her thoughts-uncertain. She is not one to shy away from admitting to a disordered mind. Much of the book concerns her time in therapy, her marital problems, and the seemingly endless mental and emotional ramifications of a parent's suicide.
One of the entries in Wickersham's index is labeled "numbness and." Below this are seven subheads, ranging from "Bullwinkle" to "various reprieves." The numbness section begins in the second person: "After your father's death, you stay with your mother for ten days. Then you drive back to Cambridge, to resume your own life. You are numb." For the next seventeen pages, Wickersham-alienated from her own life by her emotional shut down-tells her story in the second person. Not only does this show the distance she felt from herself, but it prompts the reader to buck against her assertions. When an author tells a story in the second person, they create a feedback loop, in which the audience is constantly asking "Is that what I would have done?" This questioning creates a space for doubt, which is magnified by the fact that Wickersham has already shown herself to be divorced from her own life. She also mistrusts her own lack of emotion, which is another reason she writes this section in the second person. Not only is it separate from her, but it seems somehow fake. She says, "The numbness feels unnatural. Not credible."
Wickersham is looking for a way to tell a story she believes is messy and unbelievable. A story from which she herself is alienated. A standard memoir will not work for her, because she is not the authority on her own life. There is no one story, only multiple points of view that in pastiche add up to a larger, though still incomplete (and perhaps incompletable) picture.
In Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, DJ Waldie tells a story of alienation so profound it almost prevents him from writing his own life. In fact, his peculiar genius is in telling a story through absence. Thus, he supplements-and often, supplants-his life story with the history of the suburban development in which he grew up. He is uncomfortable with the vulnerability that personal writing entails, and in some of the most revealing moments of Holy Land, he leaves behind the first-person "I" entirely. For example, after clinically laying out the specifics of his parents' deaths (length and kind of illness, age, etc.), Waldie writes, "After his mother died, he chose to live here with his father. After his father died, he chose to stay here. He stayed partly because he said he would to the girl he had loved. She is married now."
His thesis for Holy Land is that almost everything about his life (and, by extension, the lives of everyone raised in his hometown in the '50s and '60s) can be understood through "the grid." The grid is composed of the lines that make up the blueprint of the streets; the repetition, the right angles, the rules. In a series of questions added to the back of the paperback printing of the book, Waldie asks himself, "Is Holy Land a Memoir?" He answers, "Holy Land is a memoir of a place more than an account of a life."
To reduce the significance of "the grid" to mere metaphor is to miss the point of the book. Yes, the grid stands in for all the many laws and obligations-understood, stated, and hidden-that make up the striving lives of the newly suburban families Waldie describes. If the idea of the grid were integrated into a standard memoir, it could be dismissed as a dominant metaphor, slightly heavy-handed and already over-signified. In Waldie's hands, however, the grid is the opposite of metaphor. Instead of being a point of comparison that gives us an inroad to understanding the actual subject, it is a roadblock to comprehension. We are alienated from the subject (Waldie's life) by the monolith of suburbia-exactly as the author himself is.
By turning to the third person throughout, Waldie literally makes himself, the author-as-narrator, a separate character from DJ Waldie, the omniscient author-as-writer. To be a separate character means to be unknowable to the author, and therefore, this device calls into question the validity of anything he writes about himself. His use of the third person is an admission of the great unknowability of life. The movement between the voices replicates for the reader the experience of transitioning back and forth between self-knowledge and mystification. We move from inhabiting a first-person narrator to seeing the action happen at a distance, much as Waldie himself seems to.
The majority of these alienated passages concern the question of why Waldie lived his life as he did. Earlier in Holy Land, he says "He believes, however, that each of us is crucified. His own crucifixion is the humiliation of living the life he has made for himself." Since the area where he least understands himself is his own motivation in life, it opens up to the reader the chance to question the assertions he makes about that life. For example, when he disagrees with critics who contend that the suburbs create "lives of forced conformity and anonymity," his defense rings hollow, given that he has already compared his life to being crucified. By creating a narrative character from whom he is alienated, he implicitly puts himself and the reader on equal footing when it comes to understanding the motivations of this character. Holy Land, we understand, is merely his best guess.
When Ann Marlowe first published How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z in 1999, her subject matter-life as a junkie who never hit bottom, regretful but not repentant-gained more notice than her structural conceit. In his New York Times review, David Gates relegated discussion of form to a single clause, corralled off from the rest of the text by some dashes ("mini-essays under arbitrary alphabetical rubrics"). But her structure is the key to understanding the memoir.
In the book, Marlowe chronicles her triple life of the late '80s and early '90s: a powerful Wall Street stockbroker by day, a Village Voice cultural critic by night, and, at all times, a heroin addict. The book is structured, as the subtitle hints, in the form of a dictionary. Each word is redefined by its relationship to heroin, because the drug rules her life and defines her world. The book is not chronological, but it does follow an internal order separate from the arbitrary progression of the alphabet. Marlowe doles out information in a way that is sensitive to what the reader needs to know at any given time. Thus her earliest experience with heroin, while not at the beginning of the book, is near the front. She is concerned, not with the objective truth of linear time, but with the narrative truth of her story.
This is a different kind of addiction memoir from a different kind of junkie: not the cautionary tale of the wunderkind who had it all and gave it up for drugs; the addict who nearly died but saw the light-though that character does appear. Instead, Marlowe is the functional addict, clearheaded about her own situation, doing heroin in the way many people choose to drink or smoke recreationally.
And yet hidden within the memoir are hints that Marlowe was not always as clear-eyed as she purports to be. These little admissions are the most difficult, intimate parts of the book. Other postmodern memoirists assume the second- or third-person voice to create space for vulnerability. In a similar fashion, Marlowe moves in to the voice of the cultural critic to show the cracks in her own persona. Under the entry for "digital," Marlowe writes, "TV routinized everything it touched, including violent death... (t)he present became a collage, an edit, moving under your very feet." She goes on to say that "(v)ideo technology... unknots the rope of history, which no longer seems to tell a story or, maybe, have a point or an interpretation."
Why does Marlowe include this bit of philosophizing in her memoir? Many contemporary reviewers dismissed it as over-the-top and distracting from the actual point of the book-the "sober" junkie. But translating that sentiment into a first-person experience unpacks the deeper truth Marlowe has difficulty admitting. For her, everything is routinized, the present moves under her feet, and there no longer seems to be an understandable relationship between cause and effect.
With this in mind, it becomes obvious that her nonlinear structure is an effort to call her own story into question. Marlowe breaks with linear time in order to replicate, for the reader, her own experience of being unable to understand her life. This unknowability is compounded by her use of heroin, which destabilizes her perception of time. Narratively, by admitting her own imperfection, she allows the reader to call into question her version of events. Her conclusions may differ from those we draw. For instance, in the section labeled "blurring," she introduces "Dave," her main relationship throughout the course of the book. She describes him as "eight years younger," "boyishly cute," and "much more innocent." Yet a few pages earlier, we had already seen Dave, at some nebulous future moment, driving up to the Bronx to buy heroin, driven "by a hunger for adventure." Marlowe may describe him as innocent, but her structure prepares the reader to doubt this assertion.
Stylistically, Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is quite similar to How to Stop Time. But although it is also arranged alphabetically, Encyclopedia is filled with charts and illustrations, making for a more playful text. Even more than Marlowe, Rosenthal makes it clear that her aim was to write a book that consciously avoids the neat linearity of most nonfiction. In the opening timeline, Rosenthal states her goal for her writing: "Work must reflect the randomness of life, with its incessant, merciless, almost humorous bombardment of highly contrasting emotions and experiences." If Marlowe uses a nonlinear form to create holes in a story she herself does not trust, Rosenthal goes one step further: she gives us the pieces to create a story on our own, since she herself does not believe that coherent overarching narratives exist in life.
While close in form to How to Stop Time, Rosenthal's subject matter could not be more dissimilar. Rosenthal is a journalist and mother of two, living in the suburbs of Chicago. "I was not abused, abandoned or locked up as a child," she says in the foreword. "My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead... I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything... I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story."
Thus Rosenthal sets up her book as a sort of anti-memoir. She is not interested in the traditional narrative arc, the fall and the redemption, because there can be no easy narrative in a book that honestly reflects her vision of life. She promises something different and delivers in both form and content. Her "ordinary life" is fascinating, both because of the power of her writing and the unique form she uses. In literary circles, memoir is often seen as being more about scandal than skill. But Rosenthal makes good on the implicit promise of the genre-that anything can be worth reading about, if the writing is good enough.
Experimental-and especially nonlinear-forms are often associated with writers whose lives are disastrous. The assumption underlying this association is that the form of their writing rises out of the content. This ghettoizes nonlinear narratives into the provenance of the literary "other." By casting the move away from organization and authority as a reaction to a specifically disordered lifestyle, and not a more global condemnation of the quest for order in a world that is often senseless, it debases postmodernism as a genre. Rosenthal's memoir is the case against this. For writers who came of age during postmodernism, it is not their lives that are chaotic-it is life itself.
Use of Fiction
It is easy to create in readers a sense of knowing. State something as fact, and some readers will believe it to be true. Others will find it false. In both groups, you have created a feeling of knowledge, either for or against your statement. But it is much harder to create a sense of unknowing. In traditional nonfiction, readers experience uncertainty as a problem of the author, not as a viable state for the narrator. It seems sloppy. More research should have been done, or that section should have been cut. Yet isn't doubt itself a state worth chronicling?
In Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, doubt is central to the story. Nick Flynn grew up with a father who was an alcoholic, a liar, and already on the path toward serious mental illness. Much of Flynn's relationship with him was based on uncertainty: where he was, if he was sober, whether he was telling the truth, or whether he even knew what the truth was. Throughout the book, Flynn's father tells many stories-some of which turn out to be true, some false, and some neither we (nor Flynn) will ever know the validity of.
In later years, as his father's mental illness progressed, the situation got worse. Flynn worked at a homeless shelter frequented by his father and many others in similar situations. This gave Flynn a visceral knowledge of the life his father was (possibly) living. Where before it was all a mystery, a cloud-shrouded terrain with "here be dragons" written on it, now Flynn had a clear picture of the terrible places his father could be at any given moment: dead, in jail, in the hospital, drunk on the streets, unconscious, screaming.
It would be easy enough for Flynn to lay out these possibilities. Yet it would again be a collection of facts, a list of "I thought this, or this, or this." Instead, Flynn turns part of one chapter of his memoir into a surrealist play. His father, he tells us in the paragraph immediately before the play begins, is working as a Salvation Army Santa. Already, before the memoir turns fictive, Flynn prepares the reader for a world in which the state of his father is unknowable. He says, "I realize I'd never noticed just how many Santas there are, I pass dozens of them, one on every corner, same black pot, same worn suit, but from now I'll never know if one is my father... If I look too closely into any one of their faces an eye will wink, or blink, but this doesn't mean it's him."
Suddenly, there is a white space, then the word "setting" followed by stage directions. Five possible fathers, dressed up as five Salvation Army Santas, appear and address the reader directly. One freezes to death; another goes to jail; a third gets drunk, falls on a bottle, and slices his neck open. Each speaks with the voice of Flynn's father, referencing other characters we have come to know and facts that Flynn knew-or thought he knew-about his father at that time.
Clearly, this is a fictional moment, and Flynn goes to great lengths to highlight that fact for the reader. Yet it is also possible, at that moment in the memoir, that any or all of these things are actually happening to his father. The play replicates for the reader Flynn's own uncertainty. After the play ends, Flynn keeps the reader in suspense about the state of his father for a number of chapters. For all we know, he may have been a Santa who died in the play. Though we do eventually learn he is alive, we are never certain what did or did not occur that winter. All we have are possibilities.
Could he have found out what actually happened to his father? Possibly. But in closing that narrative hole in the story, he would have changed his own experience. In this case, discovering and telling the truth would be creating a lie, a fake sense of knowledge that Flynn himself never had. He is unreliable, not due to conscious omissions or overstatements, but because life is often mysterious. He is not a biographer, doing research into a question, but a memoirist trying to recreate the experience of his life for his reader. Unreliability is a central part of living.
The title of Lauren Slater's memoir, Lying, warns us about what is to come. It is a book almost impossible to describe, since the very act of choosing which parts of the narrative to relate means weighing one set of possible truths against another. Slater herself says of it, "There is only one kind of memoir I can see to write and that's a slippery, playful, impish, exasperating text, shaped, if it could be, like a question mark."
The central question-possibly the central truth-of the memoir is Slater's history of severe childhood epilepsy, and how it affected her growth into a writer and a woman with serious mental illness. Yet, again and again throughout, this very condition is called into question. At one point Slater says, "I may not really be an epileptic either. Perhaps I've just felt fitful my whole life; perhaps I'm using metaphor to tell my tale, a tale I know no other way of telling, a tale of my past, my mother and me, a tale of pains and humiliations and illnesses so subtle and nuanced I could never find the literal words." Yet less than ten pages later, she is in the office of the doctor who treated her for this possibly nonexistent disease-a man whose existence Slater has already disproved, earlier in the memoir. Possibly.
So Slater is lying about having epilepsy. Or telling the truth. Or is lying part of a deeper truth? We are told that epileptics often have trouble distinguishing truth from fiction, or they use lies as a way of making their truth more expressible. But we only know this from Slater herself, and from characters who may not exist. Slater does not tell us one lie and then expose herself; rather, she maintains multiple truths at the same time, allowing us to pick and choose between them.
Does Slater even know what the truth is? In the end, it seems, the answer does not matter. That is not what her book is about. She shoves fiction up against nonfiction, or perhaps a fictitious structure is imposed on true events, or a pastiche of the two. Perhaps it is all true, or all false. Slater makes the case that it is true to her experience, regardless of whether it is true in an objective sense.
In the afterword to Lying, Slater herself puts it best when she says, "In Lying I have written a book in which in some cases I cannot and in other cases I will not say the facts... Postmodernism may have many problems, but it also has at least one point, a point that has been driven into my heart and the hearts of many of my contemporaries, and the point is this: What matters in knowing and telling yourself is not the historical truth, which fades as our neurons decay and stutter, but the narrative truth, which is delightfully bendable." This is the heart of the postmodern memoir: to be true to the experience of the author, even when that truth is not the objective truth.
The backlash against postmodernism is already going strong. Postmodern has become a dirty word, meant to convey something confusing, precious, pretentious, or just downright sloppy. When it was born, it was David fighting the Goliath of Modernism. Now it has become the dominant force, and with nothing to rage against, it seems useless. A genre designed to take things apart cannot stand alone. The New Sincerity movement, which combines postmodernism's playfulness and rejection of universal truth with the search for personal meaning and real emotion, is gaining ascendency-and rightfully so. It is time we moved on.
But postmodernism still has lessons to teach us. They lie (and oh, how skillfully they lie) in nonfiction. As memoir struggles to be recognized as art, it must find new ways to deal with the truth, when the truth is a confused and confusing thing. It may seem easier, perhaps, to create neat narratives and paper over the parts that do not fit. Just ask James Frey, Margaret Seltzer, or Herman Rosenblat. The most successful works, however, will be those that hammer meaning out of the full mess of life; the good, the bad, and the simply inexplicable; books that recognize chaos as a precondition for existence; authors who are not afraid to admit they do not know.
Great fiction writers convince us their characters are making choices in a world of possibilities, but there is really only one choice, one direction, and the author has written the only version of events that ever will or could occur. In fiction, the author has a monopoly on truth. Great nonfiction, on the other hand, can never be truth in the literal sense of the word. It can only be a truth, a story in an arena of a thousand stories battling to document the same moments. Postmodern nonfiction acknowledges this, yet is not undone by it. Instead, it revels in the chaos, finding meaning in moments, much the way people do, and have done, worldwide, forever.